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Manchester City vs. Southampton: The title defence starts here…

It’s been three long, cold, barren months since the thrilling conclusion of the last campaign but this weekend, finally, football is back!

We’ve had a summer (in the loosest sense of the word) packed wall-to-wall with sporting drama and achievement but throughout which I’ve found myself constantly pining for the bread and butter of club football, my one true love. I detest the summer months, I really do, and the start of the new Premier League season can’t come soon enough as far as I’m concerned.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the Olympics much more than I thought I would (I didn’t think I’d enjoy them at all) but I’m extremely monogamous when it comes to sport and my relationship with anything other than football extends no further than the occasional mild flirtation when all’s said and done.

You see, my sporting calendar runs strictly from August to May and anything outside of that is no more than an unwelcome distraction. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the hard work and skill it takes to be the best at sprinting, or gymnastics, or cycling (or even f*cking dressage!) but I’m simply unable to replicate the tribal connection I seem to have always had with football and no amount of post-Olympic hysteria is going to change that.

The English football season in full bloom is a supremely interesting and engaging phenomenon and 2012/2013 for Manchester City promises nothing less. The wonders of last season are now a thing of the past and City, as reigning champions, will be expected to mount a strong challenge for both domestic and European honours this time around. The bar has now been set and anything less than a major trophy or two will be deemed an abject failure from here on in. Reaching the top is tough, but staying up there will be City’s greatest challenge yet.

If there’s one thing that usually goes some way towards brightening up the mundane close season it’s the transfer window. Since the club’s takeover in 2009, the transfer window and all the bullshit and conjecture that goes with it has provided almost as much entertainment as the football itself to City fans. This summer began with the promise of more stellar names but has so far only yielded the slightly underwhelming signing of the promising but injury-plagued Jack Rodwell for £15 million (a virtual free transfer by our standards) from Everton.

City have assembled a very talented and dependable squad at great expense over the past few years and there was naturally always going to be a time when the big spending would need to be reined in with the transfer policy instead focused on minor tweaks here and there. That time appears to have come this summer and it seems those responsible for player acquisition at the club must also be mindful of UEFA’s proposed Financial Fair Play regulations due to the relatively quiet and humble nature of our business dealings this window.

The lack of summer transfer activity may have been a slight source of frustration for the fans but the person at the club with perhaps the biggest grievance appears to be Roberto Mancini, who voiced his discontent by publicly criticising Brian Marwood, the club’s football administrator, in a press conference ahead of last Sunday’s Community Shield. Although Mancini may well feel he’s entitled to bitch and moan on the subject, surely even he must acknowledge that he’s already been furnished with one of the finest and most bloated groups of players in world football and simply cannot continue spending big money on new signings until some of the deadwood (I’m looking at you Roque) has been moved on. I hate to break it to you Bob, but you can’t always get what you want.

If City have had a quiet summer, the same cannot be said of their direct competitors in the Premier League who all appear to have made significant improvements to their squads in an attempt to challenge Mancini’s men for the title this time around. Chelsea’s signing of Eden Hazard from Lille early in the window was a huge statement of intent while Manchester United’s purchase of Robin Van Persie (which at the time of writing is imminent) will undoubtedly be regarded as something of a game changer as the new season looms large. Even Arsene Wenger has dipped into the transfer market this year meaning City are effectively the only one of the title contenders who could be accused of standing still when the smart move might be continual forward motion. If nothing else, it’s nice that for once a summer appears to have slipped by without City and everyone associated with the club being blamed for the ruination of football as we know it, although even the acquisition of a young, English player with a questionable injury record at a reasonably low fee has drawn derision from certain sections of the football world. Ever get the feeling you simply can’t win?

If proof were needed that City’s squad as it currently stands is more than capable of challenging for honours in the coming season then it came last Sunday when the club lifted its first Community Shield in 40 years following the 3-2 defeat of Chelsea at Villa Park. Although the win wasn’t exactly the “footballing lesson” City found themselves on the receiving end of in last year’s Community Shield, it was still an extremely encouraging performance with the Blues looking a cut above their opponents from first whistle to last. It would of course be foolishly pre-emptive to judge a team based on one showpiece friendly against a side who played over half of the game with 10-men but City’s display was as bombastic as one could hope for last week and we can only hope they are able to reproduce that kind of form in the opening weeks of the season.

An oft used cliché in football refers to a player who, for whatever reason, has had a long absence from his team and is therefore “like a new signing” when he finally returns. Although Carlos Tevez made his official comeback from his 6-month golfing sojourn at the back end of last season when his goals and performances gave City a much needed edge in the final push for the title, it’s not unfair to suggest that he was expectedly ring rusty and ungainly during that period. While most of us expected Tevez to finally depart for sunnier climes this summer, he has in fact done the complete opposite and regained his sharpness and focus at the perfect time for himself and the club. ‘El Apache’ looked well and truly back to his best in the Community Shield and will have a major part to play this season if he can keep his mouth shut and concentrate on what he does best.

City begin their quest to regain the Premier League title on Sunday as they entertain (hopefully a ridiculous word when used in this context) newly promoted Southampton at the Etihad Stadium and will be expected to hit the ground running with a thumping home win. It’ll be interesting to see how the Blues line up in the first game following Mancini’s apparently successful trial of a new 3-5-2 formation for much of pre-season though even that feels like more of the natural evolution of this team than a tactical revolution (A-Ha!). Anything less than three points in the opening game of the season will be considered nothing short of disastrous but it would be extremely foolish to take the Saints lightly and you expect City will have to be at their best to avoid an upset.

With the dust of the Olympic Games still settling you could be forgiven for believing that there is something of an agenda of antipathy towards our national game in the media at the moment, especially if you happen to pay any heed to The Sun’s Rob ‘Beastly’ Beasley (which I don’t). Make no mistake though, football is alive and this writer couldn’t be happier.

The time for talk is almost over, the title defence starts here. Come on City!

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